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ANN Holiday Gift Guide 2021
Manga & Light Novels

by Rebecca Silverman,


Junji Ito's Cat Diary Yon & Mu Collector's Edition

Do you know someone who loves cats and also horror? Or likes horror and is afraid of cats? Then this re-release of Junji Ito's memoir about suddenly having to cohabitate with his wife's cats is very nearly the perfect gift. Maintaining his signature style from his horror manga, Ito lovingly recounts what it was like to go from never living with cats to suddenly having to share his home with two of them, and even the most basic of cat behavior becomes something entertainingly sinister through his eyes. It's impressively funny, proving that Ito is very self-aware as a manga creator as he uses the tricks of the horror trade to cover basic things like “litterboxes” or “cats sit in weird places,” and the result is something both familiar and hilarious. There's also a very nice sense of Ito coming to love the cats the more time he spends with them, and that makes this more than just a gag manga about one guy and his spouse's pets, it's also about learning to interact with an unfamiliar member of the family. Like the original release of this title, the new hardcover has some actual photos of Yon and Mu, and this collector's edition adds in glow-in-the-dark elements as well to really capture that sense of being stared at by a cat at three in the morning. It may not necessarily be worth a double-dip if you already own the first release, but it's a nice choice for the horror/cat fan on your gift list.

Retail Price: $24.99 (Right Stuf: $18.74)
Publisher: Kodansha
Retail Link: RightStuf

Sweat and Soap by Kintetsu Yamada

Hear me out – yes, this is the “scent fetish” manga, but it's also one of the best relationship stories currently being published in English. Sweat and Soap is the antithesis of most manga romances: the characters are honest-to-goodness adults, they don't have adolescent preoccupations, and they actually talk about their issues until things are resolved. And when one of them can't quite bring themselves to talk about something? The other waits patiently until they're ready. In the world of manga romance, that's kind of mind-blowing. But more than that, it's also genuinely good. Asako and Kotaro aren't perfect people, but they're perfect for each other, and they're truly willing to put in the work needed to make sure that their relationship works for both of them. Asako comes into things with some very heavy baggage – her body produces a lot of sweat and she's incredibly self-conscious about it, in no small part because she was bullied as a child. Kotaro can't completely understand that, but he loves her, and he wants to try. Meanwhile he's sensitive about his scent fetish, and while Asako isn't completely comfortable with it, she also recognizes it as something that he can't change about himself, so she works to make it work for her because Kotaro is important to her. Add to all of this that the story doesn't skimp on tasteful sex scenes (that aren't fetishized, which feels important to mention) and that even with plenty of conflict resolution there's never a boring volume, and this is a wonderful gift for the romance reader in your life, regardless of gender. (The series is classified as seinen, but that's not a barrier at all.) That goes double if your romance reader has grumbled about high school romances: this one's truly about the grown-ups and it does it well, scent fetish notwithstanding.

Retail Price: $12.99 each (Right Stuf: $9.74)
Publisher: Kodansha
Retail Link: RightStuf

The Swamp and Red Flowers by Yoshiharu Tsuge

There are a lot of good classic manga titles, both soon to be released and already out, but if you know someone who really wants to dig into the history of the medium, Drawn & Quarterly's release of the first two of a projected seven volumes of Yoshiharu Tsuge's work is among the best. Both volumes focus on works from the 1960s, with Red Flowers being the more readable of the two as it draws on Tsuge's own travel experiences alongside folklore to tell a series of semi-autobiographical short stories. The work is clearly groundbreaking, but it's also very human, and Tsuge's use of themes of both folklore and Naturalism form an interesting backbone for the humanity of the characters and their stories. There is more of an academic bent to these releases, with the included essays being quite dense, but even if you skip those, the stories stand on their own and are fascinating examples of manga beginning to shift towards being more literary, or at least understood as a literary medium. That the volumes are lovely hardcovers with nice, thick pages and covers that don't show every fingerprint make them especially good gifts. These are the books to buy for someone who won't buy them for themselves, because for manga history buffs, they feel like required reading.

Retail Price: $24.95 each (Right Stuf: $18.71)
Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly
Retail Link: RightStuf

Spy x Family by Tatsuya Endo

Spy capers have always been solid fodder for satire, and Spy x Family takes the idea and runs with it. Twilight, a master superspy in a country that seems an awful lot like Germany before the Berlin Wall fell, is about to take on his most difficult mission: having a fake family that will enable him to get closer to his target. Confident that playing husband and father can't be that hard, Twilight takes on the alias of psychiatrist Loid Forger and sets out to adopt a child and marry a woman. Only…the wife he picks turns out to be a skilled assassin (he has no idea) and the little girl he adopts is actually a telepath (he has no idea). That means that little Anya basically knows everything that's going on, only filtered through her five-year-old brain, but Yor and Loid are totally oblivious to the truth about each other – and their daughter. Add in a psychic dog, Yor's brother the government agent, and schoolmates who have no idea what to make of Anya's many weird behaviors and the story becomes not just a Cold War spy drama parody, but a very funny series in its own right. The characters are all unique and delightful, the storylines recognizable capers with the volume dialed up to eleven, and Anya is, simply put, one of the best child characters in any manga you care to name. It's just an incredibly fun series that even manages to add in a theme of family being important without feeling preachy. If you know someone who hasn't read it yet, this is an easy pick.

Retail Price: $9.99 each (Right Stuf: $7.49) Please note that volume 1 may only be available digitally.
Publisher: Viz
Retail Link: RightStuf

Blue Flag by Kaito

There have been a number of good LGBTQIA+ manga released in the past year or so, but Blue Flag manages to stand out by being one of the most focused on the emotional impact of being confused or different. The story follows a group of friends at a high school as they navigate figuring out who they are and who they're attracted to. That includes in non-LGBTQIA+ ways, as the story plays with the typical character tropes of high school romance to encourage us to look at the people we slot into their neat little stereotypes in different ways. The result is that most of the characters in the series end up more rounded than you'd expect, and even though it's painful to watch several of them make the wrong choices over and over again based on fear and feelings of what's “normal” or supposed to be, that ultimately does make them very human. This is what sets it apart from a lot of Very Special Lesson-style manga – yes, it does get too talky or preachy at times, but it always regards its characters as flawed human beings first. Perfect people aren't fun or interesting to read about. Even at its densest, Blue Flag never forgets that and that, along with the story's understanding that we're all the protagonists of our own stories, is what makes it such a good series.

Retail Price: $12.99 each (Right Stuf: $9.74)
Publisher: Viz
Retail Link: RightStuf

Even Though We're Adults by Takako Shimura

The caveat: maybe don't give this to someone who's married. That's because Even Though We're Adults centers on a potential couple where one is already married – to a man, which is important because the potential couple are both women. Like most of Takako Shimura's work, this is an emotionally nuanced portrayal of people trying to sort out their lives. Ayano, an elementary school teacher, is married to a man, but has always known that she's attracted to women to a degree – even if she's never been entirely comfortable with that. Akari is an out lesbian (although she doesn't advertise it) who left her previous job after a relationship with another hairdresser went south. The two women meet at the restaurant where Akari's currently working, and the attraction is immediate. But Ayano's not sure that she can – or wants to – leave her husband, and he's adamantly against the idea. In part that could be due to his family; his mother's a force of nature, and not necessarily in a good way, and his younger sister has essentially become a shut-in due to her agoraphobia and anxiety. A piece of Ayano may feel like divorcing her husband would be abandoning the rest of the family, and she's half-convinced by her mother-in-law saying that her abortive affair with Akari “doesn't count” because they're both women, representing Ayano's tendency towards internalized homophobia. Meanwhile the two women can't quite stay away from each other. It's emotionally fraught and not always easy to read, but it's at the same time hard to put down. It's not a sickly-sweet feel-good story, which makes it perhaps an odd recommendation for a holiday gift, but it's a good choice for someone who doesn't need a guaranteed happy ending.

Retail Price: $12.99 (Right Stuf: $9.74)
Publisher: Seven Seas
Retail Link: RightStuf

Light Novels

I Swear I Won't Bother You Again! by Reina Soratani, illustrated by Haru Harukawa

There are plenty of light novels with misleadingly cheery titles out there, but this may rival Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon for “least appropriate.” Taking the form of the isekai variant known as “yarinaoshi loop” (a character dies and gets to start their life over again from a specific point), Soratani's text follows a girl who is much less of a villainess than she's been led to believe. Violette has had a truly awful life, abused (possibly sexually) by her mother, abandoned by her father until her mother's death, and then subjected to her father's new family, whom he clearly loves more than Violette. In fact, he continually berates her for the crime of essentially not being Maryjune, his daughter from his affair/second marriage. Violette ends up acting out against Maryjune and is executed, but then wakes up shortly after her father remarried, with the chance to do things over. Because of the way she's been treated, Violette is completely convinced that she's an awful person – but as readers, we can see that she's anything but. The title comes from Violette's determination to just join a convent once she's of age so as not to “bother” her family or the crown prince with her presence, but as the novel goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that Violette truly is the wronged party, and the stakes shift to desperately wanting the poor girl to be happy. Fortunately, she does have a very good friend (who is, naturally, in love with her), and he's able to get a bit closer to her this time around thanks to her determination to avoid Maryjune and Prince Claudia. He's always known that she's the one being hurt, as have others in the household, and the plot really becomes about Violette learning that she matters. It's dark, but it's also a nice change from many other “villainess” stories, and the stakes feel genuine. It's also worth mentioning that the manga adaptation positively neuters the story, so I'd definitely suggest giving the original novels a try instead, because this is dark with a purpose. (And if you like the concept but are looking to give something a teensy less dark, look into Hong Heesu's Daddy, I Don't Want to Marry.)

Retail Price: $14.99 (Right Stuf: $11. 24)
Publisher: Airship (Seven Seas)
Retail Link: RightStuf

Planet of the Orcs by Himataro Zukanashi

Do you know someone who's soured on isekai lately, but still kind of loves it? Then Planet of the Orcs may be the book you need to give them. The story tries to differentiate itself from others in its very crowded genre by featuring an unnamed protagonist who is on his thirteenth summoning. He made an ill-advised wish when he was fifteen and studying for exams based on having consumed too many isekai stories, and the next thing he knew, a naked girl was pulling him out of an ornamental pond. He'd been summoned as a hero, and things were pretty great for five years, when, his duty done, he was unceremoniously dumped back in his regular life – six months after he'd left. Ever since that day, he continually got summoned to different worlds in need of a hero only for the same exact thing to keep happening. Now, called by suspiciously Crusader-like humans to eliminate their orc problem, he's an old hand at the hero biz, and he's definitely noticing some off elements to this latest job. For one thing, the humans are clearly religious zealots. For another, they're making some very dangerous assumptions about the orcs being uncultured, language-less barbarians – something that chapters from the orcs' point of view tell us is dead wrong. In fact, as the novel goes on, it begins to look like the hero may have been summoned by the bad guys…and he's on his way to coming to the same conclusion. The result is an isekai novel that honest-to-goodness feels like something different, and it's a great way to revive flagging faith in the genre. And if that's not enough to convince someone, the orcs have guns. Orcs with guns is sort of mind-blowing if you were a Tolkien-reading kid, and that's almost worth the price of the book as a joke gift to a Tolkien fan right there.

Retail Price: $14.99 (Right Stuf: $11.24)
Publisher: Airship (Seven Seas)
Retail Link: RightStuf

Past Life Countess, Present Life Otome Game NPC?! by Sorahoshi, illustrated by Yuki Kinami

Opinions tend to vary on this one, but hear me out. This is a triple-isekai in that three of the characters have all reincarnated into a specific otome game-based world, all for different reasons. Our heroine, Urara, was in fact a countess in her past, but things went horribly wrong and she died unhappy, a victim of political machinations. Her dying wish was to be reborn someplace where she could just be happy and normal. Being an NPC (not that she knows the term) in an otome game world would seem to fit the bill – if she's not the heroine, no one's going to pay any attention to her, right? Especially when another person has been reborn into the game as the heroine and is determined to milk that role for her own happy ending. Our third person is there for their own reason and appears to have been reborn as the villainess, but suffice it to say that there's a lot more going on there than at first appears. Again, this is a good variation on the formula, especially since Urara is the narrative focus and really doesn't know the first thing about the game world she's been reborn into. She's not here to play the game or land any of the heroes; she just wants to be happy this time around, and that goal does a lot to make her feel different than most other heroines in the genre. The twist, involving the third reincarnated soul, is where readers tend to go all love-or-hate on the book, but I come down on the side of liking it, mostly because I am an incurable romantic. But I also think that this book is worth considering for the otome game light novel fan on your list because it once again does something different with the genre. At this point in the light novel/isekai boom we've all got our favorite tropes. This one manages to lean into some of them while also trying to do something interesting with them that's a bit off the beaten path. There are some similarities with I Swear I Won't Bother You Again in that Urara, like Violette, isn't looking for love, but this isn't quite as dark and Urara doesn't feel like she doesn't deserve to be happy. All in all it's a nice story, and sometimes that's just what you need to while away the long winter hours.

Retail Price: $14.99
Publisher: Cross Infinite World
Retail Link: Amazon

The Decagon House Murders by Yukihito Ayatsuji and The Village of Eight Graves by Seishi Yokomizo

This one isn't a light novel, but rather a classic of Japanese mystery fiction. Don't let that stop you from giving it to a light novel reader, though – not only is it by the author of Another (which is better than its anime adaptation), it's also a delightfully twisty fair play mystery that isn't hard to digest. Ayatsuji pays homage to the greats of western golden age mystery fiction (and very specifically Agatha Christie's 1939 classic And Then There Were None) in this tale of a group of college students who take a trip to a deserted island only to get picked off one by one. The students are all members of a mystery novel club and call each other by the names of classic authors (Poe, Ellery, Agatha, Orczy, Carr, Leroux, Van Dine…), and their trip is, more or less, murder tourism: the father of one of their late club members committed murder/suicide on the island six months before the story began. If that sounds like a spectacularly bad idea, you've definitely been reading murder books, because yeah, it really is. The deaths on the island and of their former club member all tie into what happens out on the island, and the narrative is divided between those doomed on the island and the two club members who didn't go as the two mysteries become increasingly intertwined. It's a true fair play mystery in that all of the clues are there if you can find them, and, like the aforementioned Christie novel, it grows increasingly sinister as people are picked off. Pushkin Vertigo has been doing an excellent job of choosing classic Japanese mystery novels to translate, and this is one of the best, followed by Seishi Yokomizo's The Village of Eight Graves, starring Kindaichi Case Files' inspiration, Kosuke Kindaichi. That's another great choice for the mystery enthusiast on your list – another fair play mystery, but this time with a troubled family legacy, old wrongs, and a missing treasure alongside identities shaken up by WWII. This one owes a lot to Christie's Hercule Poirot stories in the way it's laid out and in that Kindaichi isn't the point-of-view character, like in later Poirot novels. It's steeped in the tortured legacy that war eaves behind, and while it isn't quite as unputdownable as Ayatsuji's novel, it's also the sort of puzzle that pulls you right in and won't let go until you've found the answer. Since it's never been available in English before now (Ayatsuji's book was, but has been out of print for years), it's a pretty safe choice for a mystery buff, since there's less chance that they'll have read it before.

Retail Price: $14.95 each
Publisher: Pushkin Vertigo
Retail Links: The Decagon House Murders Amazon; The Village of Eight Graves Amazon

Temple Alley Summer by Sachiko Kashiwaba, illustrated by Miho Satake

Although technically a middle-grade novel, Temple Alley Summer is a lovely book that could easily be given to anyone who loves a good Ghibli film. That's perhaps not surprising, since another one of Kashiwaba's books was the inspiration for Spirited Away, and this one captures the same beautiful longing and bittersweetness that can be found in elements of that film. The story revolves around a magical shrine, held on to by members of one of several local families for centuries. This shrine, when prayed to, can revive a dead loved one, with the caveat that they will be revived in another family. Kazu, the protagonist, discovers this when he's looking at old maps of his neighborhood and sees a reference to “Kimyo Temple Alley;” when he starts asking questions, all of the older people in the neighborhood start getting very, very cagey. When he realizes that a new girl in his class is one he saw exiting the shrine room of his house in a burial kimono, he starts to think that there really might be something to this whole “Kimyo Temple” thing – and wonders if the adults are wrong when they insist that the girl who was returned after dying in the 1970s must be laid to rest once more. Like all good children's books, the story looks at a question that children can dig their teeth into while not talking down to them, and its meditation on the use and misuse of the shrine's Buddha statuette and how we shouldn't make blanket judgements is thoughtful and intelligent. It never outright calls people right or wrong, but encourages readers to look at all sides of an issue – no matter how old they are. It undeniably is a good gift for middle grade readers, but its message isn't one that can only reach kids. A good book is a good book, and this is one of them, and its attractive hardcover edition with haunting illustrations makes this an easy choice for a variety of readers.

Retail Price: $18 (Amazon: $15.82)
Publisher: Yonder
Retail Links: Amazon

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